Review: Autumn Light by Pico Iyer

Early on in this luminous memoir, Pico Iyer spells out what can be read as the coda to the book. “Autumn poses the question we all have to live with: How to hold on to the things we love even though we know that we and they are dying. How to see the world as it is, yet find light within that truth.”

Autumn Light, an elegiac, haunting, elegant meditation on mortality, ageing, dwindling, love and the very nature of evanescence, explores how we need to strengthen our grip on the things we hold most dear even in — especially in — the light of the knowledge that they are frail and fleeting, that we are destined to inevitably lose them.

On the face of it, Iyer follows himself and the world around him in the small Japanese town that is his home for half the year over the course of one autumn. But the narrative has no clear linear progression. Discursive and erudite, Iyer’s journey is somewhat circular and always absorbing. “We’re so convinced we’re moving forwards, when all I seem to do is go round and round with the seasons, certainly no wiser, and often only more sure of how much I cannot know,” he writes. “Progress is a New World notion I’m not sure I believe in.”

But there is a sort of progress. Or, at least, a deepening of the realisation that, while all that we cherish will eventually be taken from us, we must learn to do two things: savour those things all the more for as long as we have them because of their impermanence; and learn to derive joy from the things around us in the world we inhabit — a crystalline sky; children in a park; the shape of a flower; a walk in the woods; a game of table tennis.

Iyer quotes a Zen master on a life lesson. “In Zen practice, he explained, when you see a mountain, you become that mountain. If you are observing the autumn, you become the autumn.” Iyer’s approach is precisely that. An autumnal melancholy, like a lambent flame, illuminates the prose. At the same time, as there is in autumn, we find an urgency to delight in things before they are no more.

The shadow of illnesses, deaths, absences, and separations hang over the pages of this memoir. On the other hand, reunions and happy resolutions brighten the book. A sense of stoicism suffuses its pages, an acknowledgement of the fragility of our lives. Equally, there is an appreciation of all the things that make our lives worth living, of “the light turning the panes of the window… into a colour field of yellow and blue”.

In his novel, The Pregnant Widow, Martin Amis writes: “…As the 50th birthday approaches, you get the sense that your life is thinning out, and will continue to thin out, until it thins out into nothing. And you sometimes say to yourself: That went a bit quick. That went a bit quick.” A similar valedictory tone permeates Autumn Light. Iyer is 56 now. There is in this memoir a sort of stock taking, a counting of blessings for a lived life of rich, varied experiences and emotions. But an awareness of the void wrought by separations and absences — and of the final void towards which we all make our inexorable journeys — is just as prominent a presence.

Read more: The Pico Iyer interview: All who wander are not lost 

“Last year, at this time… and I decide to kill the thought: Hiroko’s father [Iyer’s father in law] seemed the picture of health, only to be gone three days after he entered the hospital. Next year… I’ve given up trying to second-guess the world.”

First Published:
May 24, 2019 22:01 IST

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